In Search of the Northern Lights in Iceland- October 2015

We visited Iceland previously in April 2014 and were totally blown away by the dramatic volcanic landscapes of the country.  We decided on a return visit to allow Nigel’s children Nathan (19) and Caitlin (17) the chance to experience Iceland for themselves, to explore more of the island and hopefully see the northern lights.

Due to college commitments we planned our 4 night break in the October half term and managed to secure return flights through British Airways for £110 each.  This was way cheaper than other airlines had to offer such as WOW Air and Easy Jet and we found out this was because it was a new route for BA which only started the week before.  When we stayed previously we booked the Capital Inn which is a budget hotel and hostel just 3km from central Reykjavik.  Downstairs in the hotel are dormitories and cooking facilities which are ideal for backpackers and upstairs are private rooms; some ensuite and some shared facilities.  The kitchen facilities and the fridge and freezer are available to all. The price was reasonable with good wifi, a good buffet breakfast and car parking facilities so therefore we decided to book here again.   It cost £300 for 2 private rooms with shared facilities for 4 nights which was reasonable.

01We also hired a car for £145 for the duration of our break through Atlas Choice who were agents for Pro Car as we wanted to explore the island at our leisure and not rely on expensive organised trips to get around. There are a few things about hiring cars in Iceland to be aware of; firstly you are not covered to go ‘off track’ or to certain parts of the Island in a car due to dust damage, secondly you have to have a credit card for the excess to be pre-authorised to (in our case it was £600) and thirdly as we discovered last time if you fill up at the petrol station at the airport your card could be pre-authorised up to £150 and you have to wait for up to 21 days for the money to clear again in your account.  The times of year we have been (April & October) meant there was no need for a 4×4 and roads were fine in a normal car just make sure you have winter tyres.

We arrived at Keflavik airport and after a short delay waiting for the minibus to take us to the hire car which was off airport we headed off to our hotel.  The hotel didn’t disappoint and the same facilities and services were available to us as last time.  The staff at the front desk were as helpful as before and check in was quick and easy.

Ahallgrimsfter a bit of unpacking we headed off into the town centre and parked next to Hallgrímskirkja Church, the biggest landmark in Reykjavik visible from miles around.

Sun voyager

First stop was the Sun Voyager sculpture  The Sun Voyager is a dreamboat, an ode to the sun. Intrinsically, it contains within itself the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom. The sculpture is located by Sæbraut, by the sea in the centre of Reykjavík, Iceland.  We then walked just up the road to sample the finest hotdogs Iceland has to offer at the flagship Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand.  The sausages are lamb-based, with pork and beef and served in a bun with a choice of sauces; ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade (a sauce kind of similar to tartare and aioli or mayonnaise based) and fried and raw onions. They are all ordered together with the phrase “eina með öllu” (English: “one with everything”).  Even if you’re not a fan of hotdogs its well worth trying one of these with their unique taste and sauces.

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Heading back to the car after a walk around the town explore further we stumbled across an italian restaurant called Rossopomodoro and stopped to have a proper meal and laughed at the irony of eating italian in Iceland; nevertheless it was a good meal with good service enjoyed by all.  We headed back to our hotel for a much needed rest.

On the 2nd day after a  bit of a lie in we decided to drive around the famous Golden Circle. After stocking up on our buffet breakfast we headed off to towards Þingvellir National Park via a supermarket to stock up on hotdogs, buns and sauces for our first stop.  Last visit we had come across the Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths and although didn’t go into the baths there are toilet facilities, a cafe and souvenirs.   We also tagged along with a coach party and were able to see bread which had been cooked in the ground being dug up and able to try some. I can only describe it as tasting like a mild jamaican ginger cake but it was very nice.  Unfortunately there was no coach party today however our mission was to use the hot springs on the beach area to cook our own hotdogs which we managed to do successfully :).  It was however really blooming cold and blowing a gale!

Next stop was Geysir.  Depending on the time of year you are asked to pay 600 isk (Approx £2.80) to go in but it seems in October this did not apply.  We saw Little Geysir bubbling away and waited for Strokkur to erupt (every 8-10 minutes).

Nigel and I then walked up to the top of the hill whilst Nathan and Caitlin waited by The Great Geysir in the hope of it erupting whilst we were there.  The Great Geysir only erupts every 8 hours and therefore the chances of us seeing it were unfortunately very slim and it didn’t happen. Nevertheless we did get an amazing view from the top of the hill.

Geysir

Next stop on our Golden Circle tour was the Gullfoss Waterfall.  Gullfoss is an extremely powerful waterfall which fall down in three stages.  Everyday approximately 38 million tonnes of water flows down the waterfall and there was talk about it being used to generate electricity but due to funding this didn’t happen and it is now a protected site.  It is a spectacular sight and one not to be missed.

The final stop on our tour was Kerid, an inactive volcanic crater in the Grimsnes area of Southern Iceland.   It is composed of a red volcanic rock rather than the black which makes it a unique sight.  It is thought that it was a cone volcano which when emptied of magma collapsed in on itself.

We headed back to Reykjavik in search of food.  After a walk around the town centre and a stop at the English Pub for a quick drink we headed to find a proper meal and stumbled across a burger bar called American Style.  This was quite expensive at approximately £12 a burger but with fussy eaters in our party and none of us quite ready to brave the traditional Icelandic food yet it was the best we could find.  It was ‘ok’ but always check whether it comes with chips as we ended up with a bucketful!

We pondered on our chances of seeing the Northern lights; we had been closely monitoring the kp index since our arrival and tonight was thought to be kp3 meaning they may be visible; it was typical that the previous weeks had an amazing show of northern lights almost every night. We had a walk down to the port and as we were there we saw something strange in the sky; after standing looking at it for a while we came to the conclusion that what we were seeing was very faint Northern Lights, swirling patterns in the sky with a pale green tinge.  We took to the car and tried to find a place with less light pollution, heading down towards the harbour wall.  After watching for some time they faded but even though we didn’t get a dazzling light show we could now say we had seen them!

The next day the boys and the girls split up; Caitlin and I planned a visit to Reykjavik and an afternoon at the Blue Lagoon whilst the boys headed off on their own adventure.  As the boys were venturing further afield in the car Caitlin and I walked into Reykjavik from the hotel which was a good 30 minute walk in very windy conditions; not to be recommended if you have any type of mobility problem.  We had a look round the shops and went inside Hallgrímskirkja Church going up to the top in the lift which cost 900isk each (approx £5.00) however it was well worth the views.

Next was a bit of window shopping around Reykjavik and some ice cream for Caitlin.  We then headed back to the hotel for our 3pm pick up to take us to the Blue Lagoon.

We booked the trip through the hotel reception and at £80 for the both of us this was not cheap however it is an amazing experience I had encountered already and Caitlin was keen to see for herself so we went for it.  We got to the lagoon at 4pm and had a great time having a drink in the water, splashing about, trying mud mas
ks and leaving clay handprints all over the place!

The boys went to the waterfalls at Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfrabúi and Skogafoss. Seljalandsfoss is a watefall that you can walk behind and is one of the best known waterfalls in Iceland, found on route 1 between Selfoss and Skogafoss.   They also discovered the hidden gem of Gljúfrabúi which is very close to Seljalandsfoss but hidden by rocks.

They then carried on further up the road until they reached Skogafoss.  This is a popular place for weddings in Iceland and on our last trip we were able to witness a wedding here.  You can also climb up some very steep steps just to the right of the waterfall to reach the top and look down on it.  After visiting Skogafoss and climbing to the top they then headed off to Dyrholaey.

Dyrholaey is a small peninsula not far from the town Vik on the southern tip of the island.  The views at Dyrholaey are unique due to the black sand beach and its basalt pillars.

Dyrholaey

It is quite off the beaten track and  quite easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for.  There are dangers here to be aware of however such as rock slides and  being swept away by  waves.

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At 10pm following a delay in returning from the Blue Lagoon by changes of coaches the party was reunited!  After a hunt out for food and finding another American Style burger restaurant and an unsuccessful Northern Lights expedition we headed back for an early start the next morning.

For our last full day we decided to go on an epic road trip to Jokulsarlon which was a 740km round trip.  The instructions were basically leave Reykjavik, take route 1 and in 370km turn left! We left when it was still dark and made our way down route 1 past Selfoss, Hella as the sun rose stopping at Eyjafjallajokull to view the volcano that caused air traffic to be grounded back in 2010.
ejufel

Continuing on our route we reached Vik which is on the southernmost tip of Iceland and very picturesque with its black sand beach and pretty church.  Vik is reported to only have 291 residents but is the largest settlement in a 70km radius.

We stopped for some lunch and refreshments and continued on our route; carefully monitoring the wind speed to ensure that we could continue.  We were warned that if the wind speed reached over 10km p/h we were not to proceed to Jokulsarlon due to sand storms which could damage the car.  Luckily the wind speed stayed low and we were able to continue.

After Vik the landscape changed dramatically and for many kilometres we encountered…well nothing! The scenery as we neared towards Jokulsarlon became more and more  breathtaking however and we stopped for several photo opportunities!

Finally after driving for approximately 5 hours we reached our right turn and made it to Jokulsarlon!  Despite our tiredness were were not disappointed by the sights that greeted us here; in fact it was breathtaking and unlike anything we had every seen before.

jok

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We had seen pictures of Jokulsarlon and its bright blue icebergs but always though they were photoshopped and they aren’t.  The glacier lagoon has been used for several films including two James Bond films (Die another day and a View to a Kill), Lara Croft: Tombraider and Batman Begins.   The glacier covers an area of 6.9 square miles and is popular with tourist; there is a cafe and gift shop there and even Wifi.  Also running are amphibious tours around the glacier and so we booked our spaces on the one next availableyok6

The cost of the tour is 5000isk which is approximately £28.  The tour lasts for between 30 and 4o minutes and can get very cold but for us this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  The tour was informative and we were able to get close to the icebergs we wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise.

Back onto dry land and after a hot drink to warm up we walked down to beach after a recommendation from another tourist waiting for the tour.  Here we were able to walk in between icebergs on the black shore and to make it even more magical the sun was just setting.

yok8direcstiossd

We stayed as long as we could braving the cold but eventually had to start our long journey home.   On the way back we stopped in Vik to try and find somedinner; Nigel was feeling tired so had a nap whilst Nathan, Caitlin and I went to find some food.  We struggled to find many places but settled on a small restaurant down a side street called Halldorskaffi which served toasted sandwiches and cheeseburgers.  Job done!  We eventually made it back to the hotel around 1am.

Our last day in Iceland and we had a few hours to kill before we had to head for the airport and therefore headed into Reykjavik town centre.  Opposite Hallgrímskirkja Church is a little coffee shop/eaterie called Cafe Loki and after visiting previously we were aware they sharkysold fermented shark.  At the beginning of our holiday Nathan had said he was going to try some and they served it in here with Brennavin, Iceland’s signature distilled drink which has an aniseed taste.  We ordered the fermented shark which came out on 4 cocktail sticks and with a shot and we all bravely decided to try some…..Nigel couldn’t even chew it and spat it out, Nathan and Caitlin like troopers chewed it and swallowed and me… I had some but felt immediately sick and though I was going to be too! The Brennavin afterwards certainly did not help and when we spoke with the Icelandic server he informed us that he doesn’t eat it but that traditionally Icelandic people have it once a year to celebrate their ancestors and when this was all they had to live on.  The thought of the smell (kind of gone off cheese soaked in ammonia) still turns my stomach now.  Still nauseated we headed back to the hotel and then to the airport for our flight home, very sad to be saying goodbye to this amazing island :(:(.

Iceland is a place where no two visits will ever been the same due to the extreme and changing weather and landscape. It is a place that no matter how hard you try to describe it or how many photos you see, unless you go there you do not appreciate the raw breathtaking beauty of the island. The Icelandic people are very friendly and welcoming and with an extremely low crime rate it is a very safe place to visit; you are more likely to be at risk from the elements and extreme weather than be affected by crime. Generally as a rule we don’t return to the same place again as there are plenty of new and different places yet to be explored; however with Iceland we agree we would definitely make an exception.  We would like to do the entire ring road and see the north of the island and plan at some point in the future to hire a camper van for the occasion.

ring road

We would definitely recommend hiring a car whilst in Iceland as this way you can stop when you want to and take as long as you want in the different areas. Additionally with tours at approximately £50 per person hiring a car is most definitely a cheaper option as our car for the duration cost less than three people on one tour!  The Blue Lagoon is amazing and well worth a visit for a bit of r&r however it is expensive; be warned that they are building a hotel complex on the site and therefore I believe the beauty and uniqueness of the lagoon is likely to be blighted by this.  Jokulsarlon was definitely the highlight of the trip but it was a very long day and that amount of travelling is not for everyone; it may wise if travelling from Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon having an overnight stop in Vik on the way there and back just to break up the journey.

 As a whole you can make your trip to Iceland as cheap or as expensive as you like; there are supermarkets around to buy your own food and drink and places like the Capital Inn provide cooking and storage facilities.  We belong to an Icelandic group on facebook who often highlight damage caused by tourism and with the budget airlines now making Iceland more accessible it may be worth making the visit sooner rather than later before it becomes more commercialised.

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